The Power of Total Commitment

Wagner, Frank. (2015). The Power of Total Commitment.  SCC Marshall Goldsmith

I write this on New Year’s Eve.  A time of reflection for me. I remember a quote from Ron Edmonds, 1979.  It is still true today.

We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us.  We already know more than we need to do that. Whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far.”

As Frank Wagner wrote, The Power of Total Commitment. Who are the people with total commitment for our kids?  Who can engage in positive ways to leave a legacy of learning for our kids and colleagues?  Who wants our communities to model ethical and humane behaviors that are preached in most religions?  I DO.

My notes are based on an allegory of conversations between a founder of a company who is passing the leadership to a new CEO.  I am only picking out a few of the lessons contained within.  I can strongly support reading it as many of us are developing future leaders in staff, and most importantly, students.  Neil Postman said, “Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.”  We have work to do to insure a good future for ourselves and our kids.

In the foreword, Ken Blanchard said, “Many of the crises we face today in our personal and professional growth are not due to lack of leadership. They are based on a lack of commitment.”  Commitment builds trust.  Most of us track leaders by listening to what they say and watching what they do.  The closer those two are, trust increases.  The farther apart they are, the less trust in the leader and the system.  Who do you hang around?  Who do you work with?

An example I use in workshops is in the area of diversity.  Just about every mission statement and goals schools and districts profess have some statement about believing in diversity, embracing diversity, or committed to diversity.  My question for the people working in the system is, ‘what will I see or hear that tells me you believe in diversity?’  Words without actions are rumors.  NOTE:  (mini rant) I do not like the statement tolerate diversity.  Really?  How about embracing and learning from diversity. Jeez,

Frank promotes three truths.

  1. Values drive commitment – I want to hear what teachers and leaders believe and what they value. What keeps you awake at night? Who influences you?  What events have shaped your attitudes?  What makes you happy? People want to understand your personal story. They want to know why they ought to be following you.
  2. You either lead by example, or you don’t lead at all. What is credibility behaviorally? When we asked this question, the answer came back loud and clear: You must do what you say you will do. As Sam (a character in the book) says, “I realized no one escapes from leading by example. The only question is, what example are we setting?
  3. The best leaders are the best learners. Leadership can be learned through active experimentation, observation of others, study in the classroom or reading books, or simply reflecting on one’s own and others’ experiences. What was more important was the extent to which individuals engaged in whatever style worked for them Which comes first, learning or leading. Learning comes first.

So, how do you help make your commitments happen?  One way is to persist in acknowledging, implementing, and continually checking on progress.  People forget, leaders have to remind them.  Leaders have to overcommunicate.  I often ask leaders ‘on a scale of 1-10, 1 (one being you don’t know how to spell the word learning and 10 (ten) learning is in every sentence that comes out of your mouth , what would they say?’

Thomas Edison’s line about success being 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. To me commitment really requires two things.

  1. you have to believe in something. A prerequisite for commitment is a sense of direction.
  2. you also need the willingness to persist and act consistently with what you believe in over the long haul.

Jim Collins (2001) uses the metaphor of a fox and a hedgehog.  I have been a fox for years, wanting to know more and more.  The hedgehog, on the other hand, stays focused, persists, and sees a preferred future. The ability to stick to focus on what is important is essential to effective leadership and management.

Here are questions that are in the book to remind and refocus leaders on their commitment.

  • Did I help our customers today? As a school leader my customers are staff and students.
  • Did I help in achieving any of our key results?
  • Did I help our people today?
  • Did I help our Company’s mission and strategy? What is your personal mission? What is your professional mission?
  • Was I a good role model of our Company’s values? Oliver Wendell Holmes has a quote, ‘what I do speaks so loudly, they can’t hear what I am saying.’

Another question to help leaders focus is, ‘How can you get others to focus on what’s most important?’ Focus on the one-hundred meters in front of you. He beat into my head that looking too far out in front or too closely within one’s own psyche were disaster-prone scenarios. Because they lost sight of their immediate, controllable surroundings. 

If the leader could learn from someone, s/he took full advantage of the situation. So, who do you learn from?  Who would you like to learn from?  Who do you hang around, people who zap you (energize) or people who sap you (drag you down)?

Here is a suggestion given in the book to help implement and sustain learning.

  1. Focus on what’s important
  2. Lead by example
  3. Reward success.

“Our job is to reward success, not failure.”

There is no end to learning.  Who believes the future will be the same as now?  Not Me. “The most insidious disease in business is complacency. I call it psychosclerosis:  hardening of the attitudes.”          F.G. “Buck” Rodgers

Managing disrespect is as important as anything we’ve talked about so far. Remember I’m carefully choosing my words here. What you are asked to do is manage disrespect. I didn’t say your role is to cure or solve it. “The word manage connotes an on-going process.”. Too many times in the past, I’ve taken too passive a stance when I saw someone taking potshots at what I’m committed to.”

By doing nothing, you give approval for inappropriate actions.” I have also heard the phrase, ‘what you permit you promote.’ I found this attributed to Liz Jazwick. Silence can signal more than action if we allow bad behavior.  Will Felps has done a study that there is a reduction of 40% by having one bad apple on your team.  In my opinion that is too high of a cost to pay for tolerating poor behavior.

To combat complacency, Frank offers this idea.  Curiosity is a sure antidote for complacency. If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself, but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer one defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle. I think this is good advice.  Not only does it focus on knowing yourself and others, learning from real life and getting feedback is extremely important.  I suggest we change the “F” word to ‘feedback’ rather than failure.  Once we have feedback, we can use that learning for what Marshall Goldsmith calls ‘feedforward.’

Getting feedback from multiple sources, assuming  trust and honesty, can create better results.  If the only person you listen to is yourself, you have a fool for a teacher. James Suroweiki (2004) in his book, Wisdom of Crowds, suggests that over 80% of the decisions by a team are better than the smartest person on the team. Reason? More perspectives, more ideas usually leads to better decisions because we take into account more information and the results both positive and negative.

People can bounce their ideas off of and listen to people who have the capability of sparking their creativity. The credit belongs to others. They’ve shaped my thinking and improved upon It. Changed it in ways I’d never have achieved alone. And, therein lies their usefulness.

Frank Grisanti, a businessman and consultant has Four Rules:

  1. Only do business with people at your level of integrity
  2. Only accept work you are fully qualified to perform
  3. Know the rules of the business you are working with
  4. Don’t be a pig

They sound good to me. Agreeing to abide by rules like this before working together can help move at a faster pace.  A safe place to work and interact normally generates more ideas and better ideas.

Without change, you’re not improving anything. Before any real change can take place, two steps are crucial:

  1. looking for a better way
  2. learning from others.

How do you leverage your skills and the skills of those around you? Have you ever thought about what you don’t have on your team?  How do you get those skills to be more productive? Robert Pascale once said, “Nothing fails like success.”  Once we are successful, sometimes we think we have found THE answer or the behaviors will hold true for every problem and forever.  HA.  Things change and I have rarely found one thing that works in every school with every staff member.  I say may times, “you need repertoire and the agility to use that repertoire.”

My favorite quote that Frank has in this book is from Mark Twain. ”Anyone who has had a bull by the tail knows five or six things more than someone who hasn’t.”  Yes I know that every athletic coach, drama coach, etc. wasn’t the best performer and they can still be an effective coach. However, having a lot of experiences to draw from can be a value added knowledge base.  If you have been in the arena, it can be an advantage, IF YOU HAVE LEARNED FROM THE EXPERIENCE.                       

 “A person who won’t assess an upcoming risk has no advantage over the person who can t.”

President Teddy Roosevelt said about the strong man who stumbles compared to the critic. The credit belongs to the man marred by dust and sweat and blood in the arena who strives valiantly; who errs and comes up short, time and time again; who knows great enthusiasm; and who devotes himself to a worthy cause. At best, he knows the triumph of high achievement. At worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly. His place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

So, get in the arena, bring your repertoire, learn constantly, and take the lessons forward.  Finally, share your learnings with those who want to get better.  Be the learning catalyst that makes the system go forward.

A final word from Frank. You can’t rest on past success. You have to continuously look for a better way. Never stop learning or challenging yourself*and others. Finally, you have to persist in taking risks. Doing all of these takes courage. A lot of it.

As in the past, italics means direct quotes from the book.  You can order this book from Amazon.  If you want multiple copies, feel free to email Frank directly at

There are more important points than I have represented here.  Good reading to all.


Collins, J.  (2001).  Good to great.  New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc.

Edmonds, R. (1989). History of effective schools. Retrieved from

Surowiecki, J.  (2004).  The wisdom of crowds.  New York: Anchor Books.